The Popular Mechanics Guide to Safer Schools

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Attacks in our schools seem to be occurring with more frequency and with higher intensity. But the response among political and school-district leaders has often been confused and often been understandably inconsistent. Schools are not, in fact, more common targets for mass shootings than other public venues. But as free and open places for learning, creativity, and athletics, they are particularly vulnerable. And of course schools have a special obligation to keep the children in their care safe.

Protecting schools is a particularly terrible and vexing problem. But Popular Mechanics has always been about solving problems. This is not a story about guns or rights or control. Those debates will take a log time to play out. There will be no legislative solution tomorrow or the next day or by the end of this school year. In the meantime, we decided to apply our expertise to the physical structure of schools—how can we make these buildings a little more secure? And how can we do so without making schools feel like prisons?

We consulted with building engineers, security experts, and leaders at schools that have suffered the awful trauma of a shooting and applied hard lessons from that experience. In this guide, you’ll learn about some of the basic physical and organizational changes that any school can make in order to become safer and less fearful. It is designed so that any member of a school community wondering what measures they should consider—and also what they shouldn’t—can find something useful.

One other point: The likelihood of a person with a gun walking into any given school tomorrow or the next day is very, very low. As you’ll see, some improvements that are designed to guard against such a horror can also have benefits in helping a school mitigate other common problems—and even improve its sense of community.

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To protect our kids and make schools safer, let’s turn to the states for help

After a tragic shooting in a south Florida school earlier this year, 17 parents no longer wait for the sound of the school bus coming home in the afternoon. Among families across the states, awareness is at a fever pitch, and calls for action are plentiful. But, action does not necessarily mean solutions.

Budget appropriations do not necessarily mean safety. With more than 150 school safety related bills considered by state legislatures this year, the American people and the legislators they have elected have a unique opportunity to create real solutions for school safety. Today’s epidemic of school violence calls for a full review and in-depth study of school security practices and what proposals have been proven to work.

Will change come from perimeter security or door wedges? These are real questions. The answer to each is yes, no and maybe. While swift action — in the form of appropriation — shows legislators are committed to ensuring school safety, there are myriad solutions that deserve attention and analysis.

Nationally, there are about 100,000 K-12 public schools, serving nearly 50 million students with six million teachers and staff, for about 180 days of every year. With thousands of school systems implementing a variety of approaches to school safety, there is no shortage of effort, but legislators need to identify and help implement solutions that work.

And, all options should be on the table. However, the real question is not who can act the fastest, but what actions can be taken that give kids and schools the safe learning environment they deserve. There are no binary solutions to tackle these issues, but an uncompromising commitment to school safety must be the focus of all decision makers at every level of government.

Many programs, solutions and resources are already in place in states around the nation. School security and safety reforms in states like Connecticut, Indiana, and others should serve as successful blueprints for other states.

The implementation of reforms must be done quickly and efficiently, but with the needed time for empirical analysis of program results. Some school safety measures can be costly, though others may be simple and cost effective. Utah’s SafeUT Line a 24/7 anonymous tip line available to students to report bullying or threats empowers students with a “see something, say something” mentality.

Some states already offer promising practices that are being implemented to great effect. Lawmakers in Connecticut have passed laws requiring electronic surveillance at access points to campuses, as well as tamper proof locks.

In Texas, the Texas School Safety Center was created in 2001 to serve as a central location for school safety information and school security state wide. As part of its role, it implements active shooter trainings, security risk assessments, and secures additional funding for ensuring schools are secure against threats.

Mitigating threats alone will not make our schools safer for students and teachers. All too often we read that warning signs of troubled children were evident well before a tragedy occurs. Providing additional mental health resources for schools to intercede with students who may struggle with issues can help ensure they receive the care and support they need before they resort to violence. Providing these types of holistic approaches can stop the problem at its root.

Some states also have complex legal codes and structures in place that govern different aspects of schools in different manners. Creating a plan of action and working quickly to untangle bureaucratic logjams is key to helping effectively create legislation that will create safer campuses and give lawmakers the understanding they need to create standards in areas they may never have imagined.

As the largest voluntary membership association of American state legislators, the American Legislative Exchange Council is uniquely positioned to convene such a discussion. This week, more than one thousand state legislators from across the 50 states will join together in New Orleans for an in-depth discussion about what’s working.

They will identify principles for school security. These are not prescriptions, rather they will be a broad framework for guidance, assessment and implementation that take all factors and stakeholders into account.

It’s time for states around nation to come together and share the tools needed to ensure kids are safe and focused on learning. Now is not the time for partisanship or personal attacks. It is not the time for motive questioning or marginalizing possible solutions. Our kids are too important. They are the most important. Everyone agrees on that point, so let’s start there.

Robert Boyd is the executive director of Secure Schools Alliance, a national leadership organization focused on improving the security infrastructure, security technology and life safety systems of America’s K-12 public schools. Lisa B. Nelson is chief executive officer of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the nation’s largest voluntary membership association of state legislators.

Educating Leaders on Hardening Schools

The recent release of the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card is notable – not simply because it gave U.S. public schools a D+ grade on their overall condition, but due to its failure to address upgrades needed to the security infrastructure, security technology, and life safety systems of schools. As the new administration and Congress consider a major national infrastructure bill, it is time to invest in upgrading the security infrastructure of K-12 public schools.

Although the report card mentioned the secondary use of public school facilities as “emergency shelters during man-made or natural disasters,” it failed to address the primary use of school facilities. Every day, public schools in the United States house nearly 50 million students and 6 million adults, in 100,000 buildings, encompassing 7.5 billion gross square feet of space, on 2 million acres of public land.

Investments in Security

Per the Education Commission on the States, the average school year is 180 days, or 49 percent of the calendar year. According to the 2016 State of Our Schools report, state and local governments invest more in K-12 public schools (24%) than any other infrastructure sector outside of highways (32%). In fact, that report stated annual capital investment, maintenance, and operations spending from state and local governments on K-12 facilities is $99 billion per year. On the other hand, the report card noted, “the federal government contributes little to no funding for the nation’s K-12 educational facilities.” Given the “staggering scale” of investment, spending, and use of schools by so much of the U.S. population (17%), it can be argued that the federal government should invest more in protecting children and those who care for them daily during half of the year.

Not everyone agrees – some still argue that K-12 public school facilities are the responsibility of local school districts and states. However, there is a clear role and responsibility for the federal government in contributing to the protection of schools, which has been laid out by the Department of Homeland Security. The National Infrastructure Protection Plan lists schools as a subsector of “government facilities” and calls for their planning and protection. Since 9/11, the federal government has done an admirable job of protecting high-value targets – such as federal office buildings, power plants, and dams – from attack. Now, with the rise of both global and homegrown terrorism, the domestic homeland security emphasis has shifted to soft targets.

Internal & External School Threats

The Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology noted that schools and other educational institutions represent soft targets. A soft target is a relatively unguarded site where people congregate, normally in large numbers, thus offering the potential for mass casualties. According to Brenda Heck, deputy assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Counterterrorism Division, “soft targets are now a priority for terrorists determined to inflict damage in the United States…. This is a world where soft targets are the name of the game” (quoted in National Defense Magazine in 2011).

Terrorism is not the only threat of violence that schools face. One study, Violence in K-12 Schools 1974-2013, found almost all mass incidents of violence in elementary schools were committed by intruders and most often committed by adults. In middle and high schools, most violence came from within (students), but intruders – which can be stopped – committed 35% of violence.

The common denominator in the threat to public schools, then, is not the attacker, but the security readiness of the facility. The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission made specific recommendations for improving school facility security, and the state of New Jersey has gone as far as mandating security improvements for new and existing schools.

Taking Steps Toward Securing Facilities

With appropriate attention and funding, public schools can conduct the security steps needed to stop intruders before they have an opportunity to commit violence. In fact, most security improvements to school facilities also aid in the reduction of school-based violence and assist authorities in the identification and containment of violence when it occurs.

The first step in the process is to formally assess each school facility because each facility is different. The Secure Schools Alliance Research and Education (the Alliance) organization has released a list of no-cost safety and security facility assessments for K-12 public schools. The Alliance partnered with the Police Foundation and Dr. Erroll Southers of TAL Global to develop the list, which is based on a review of existing open-source federal and state information, so school officials can access the most comprehensive assessment tools available.

In addition to an assessment, each facility needs a security plan. No-cost planning guidelines are available through the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools. Both assessments and plans should be conducted and developed by experts in critical infrastructure protection, in consultation with local law enforcement and local school leaders.

In the coming weeks, the Alliance will be releasing three briefs prepared by the Police Foundation: “Starting the Conversation About School Safety,” “Partner Roles and Responsibilities for Securing Schools,” and “Secure Schools: Part of Healthy Learning Environment.” The briefs are intended to show that the entire community has a role in securing schools and that a secure school does not have to resemble a prison to be effective.

The Alliance has additionally launched a first-of-its-kind tool with the help of the Police Foundation and Southers: An interactive map of state-by-state security policies and resources for K-12 public schools. By selecting a state on the map, school decision makers can access a breakdown of “promising practices,” including state policies and resources related to school safety and security requirements in the following areas: security and assessment; creation and identification of roles and responsibilities for state school safety centers and related committees; school administrators and faculty; allocation of funds for improving school safety and security; and all-hazards emergency planning and preparedness.

Although the Alliance has identified state-by-state resources, local communities and state governments cannot and should not bear sole responsibility for the cost of securing school facilities. For this reason, the Alliance is working with industry and education organizations, parents, fire protection and law enforcement officials, as well as public safety experts to request that the president and congressional leaders designate matching funding to leverage and support the work states, local schools, and communities are doing to improve the security infrastructure, security technology, and life safety systems of K-12 public schools.

“Education and learning cannot happen in an environment that is unsafe. The protection of schools, as an element of our nation’s critical infrastructure, should be deemed a priority for homeland security,” said Southers, a former California deputy director of homeland security for critical infrastructure, during a personal discussion in April 2017. “It is time to have federal financial support for securing U.S. school facilities and protecting the nation’s most critical asset – its children.”

Robert Boyd was formerly an executive at several education nonprofits, including, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Community Education Building in Delaware, where he led the $26 million conversion of an 11-story office building into a state-of-the-art campus for charter schools. It has been heralded as the safest building in Wilmington as well as one of the safest schools in the nation. In addition to his role as chief of staff to a senior congressman, he also previously worked in the New York City Mayor’s Office and was public safety chairman for University Park, Texas. He holds degrees from Brown, Harvard, and Southern Methodist universities and can be reached at

13 strategies you can use right now to advance school safety

checktheboxThe National School Safety Center, sponsor of America’s Safe Schools Week, offers 13 primary strategies to help inform, persuade, and integrate school safety and public opinion.

1. Convince your school board, superintendent and principals that quality education requires safe, disciplined and peaceful schools

2. Develop a district wide safe schools plan, as well as individual plans for each school in the system

3. Develop a school safety clearinghouse for current literature and data on school safety issues

4. Establish a systematic, district wide mandatory incident reporting system

5. Prepare a school safety public information brochure

6. Develop safety policies

7. Develop and regularly update a school safety fact sheet for your district

8. Create a school safety advisory group

9. Support America’s Safe Schools Week

10. Develop and maintain a community resource file of people known for their abilities to shape public opinion and accomplish goals

11. Build a public relations team, starting with school employees

12. Create a comprehensive identity program for your district

13. Publish a district magazine or newsletter

Graphic via ClipArts.